Friday, Dec. 3, 1999 | 9:46 a.m.
Tony Amati took the witness stand Thursday in his triple murder trial and admitted he was present the night the last of the three victims was gunned down in a hail of bullets.
But he told the jurors who could decide his fate today that he was not a participant nor even aware that the killing of 22-year-old Keith Dyer was about to happen. The Pizza Hut worker was walking a co-worker to her apartment near UNLV when they were confronted by three men wearing dark clothing and masks.
Amati blamed Dyer's slaying on his two buddies and fellow burglars, Troy Sampson, 27, and Edward James, 23. Both men were arrested with Amati after undercover Metro Police gang officers bought guns from the trio in October 1996 that later were discovered to include the murder weapons.
Under questioning by his attorney, Christopher Oram, Amati recalled that Sampson said "brace yourself" to Dyer and the girl just before the flurry of bullets were fired.
"It didn't make any sense," Amati said, detailing how there were so many shots. "It seemed like a constant bang."
"My ears started ringing and I felt numb," the defendant continued. "I felt like I had concrete feet. I couldn't run. I remember screaming."
Although ballistics tests linked the stolen guns to the killing, murder charges against Sampson and James eventually were dropped by the district attorney's office because of a lack of evidence.
Amati testified in District Judge Joseph Bonaventure's courtroom that he simply wasn't present when the first two slayings occurred and couldn't say who the gunmen were in those cases.
The jury was set to begin deliberations today after closing arguments from the defense and prosecution attorneys.
To explain the masks and dark clothing reported by witnesses to the Dyer slaying on Aug. 29, 1996, Amati said he and his friends were on their way to scout a Radio Shack store for a future burglary.
Amati readily admitted he was a burglar -- he has two juvenile convictions for roof-top burglary attempts -- and confessed to breaking into a gun store where the murder weapons were stolen.
The guns were allegedly used in three killings.
The first slaying, of Michael John Matta as he rummaged through a Dumpster on May 27, 1996, occurred the day after the guns were stolen from Master Shooter's Supply on West Sahara Avenue.
The second killing occurred July 28, 1996, when John Garcia, 48, was shot in the head in his garage at 5147 Greene Lane, near Tropicana Avenue and Maryland Parkway. A month later, Dyer was killed.
Amati, 23, who had eluded capture until February 1997 and became the first Nevadan on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, denied in court that he was carrying a gun the night Dyer was killed.
But after the gun sale sting by Metro detectives, officers served a search warrant on Amati's home and found a cache of weapons -- including a laser-sighted 9 mm pistol in the nightstand next to his bed.
That gun was determined to be one of the three weapons used to kill Dyer, along with two other pistols found in the home.
Although there were no witnesses to identify the killers in any of the slayings, Amati was connected to the Dyer killing through blood found on a sidewalk. Amati admitted it was his blood and was the result of falling as he fled "in shock" from the scene.
Under cross examination by Deputy District Attorney Michael O'Callaghan, Amati admitted he had lied repeatedly -- and successfully -- to police across the country, but said he was telling the truth in court.
Amati, a telemarketer since age 16, conceded it was a lie when he originally told Metro investigators that he bought the weapons after the last of the three killings.
He also told how he evaded capture by using phony identifications and aliases, even when he was stopped by police as he traveled from state to state.
In Utah, a trooper found a gun in his car and he talked his way out of an arrest.
In California, a trooper discovered Amati was carrying about $24,000 in cash in a shoebox, but the defendant talked his way to freedom. In another California incident, an officer discovered Amati's true identification hidden in a shoe but didn't run the name through crime computers because Amati said it was a phony ID he used to get into adult clubs.
Amati finally was captured by the FBI in Marietta, Ga., through a tip that followed a broadcast of the manhunt on the television show "America's Most Wanted."
He explained to the jury that he fled because he didn't think anyone would believe him if he went to the police and he knew he had left his blood at the Dyer crime scene.
He said he also feared Sampson, who had visited him just a month ago in the Clark County Detention Center.
"He told me to be quiet and keep my mouth shut," Amati said.
When Oram asked why he was now telling his story and naming Sampson and James, the defendant responded, "I'm between a rock and a hard place. If I don't tell what happened now, no one ever will."
"Did you commit murder," Oram asked.
"No I didn't," Amati replied.
As the evidentiary process came to a close, the jury was told about Amati's writings both before and after his arrest.
It was shown that while in jail Amati wrote to Donte Johnson, 19, who is charged with committing the execution slaying of four young men.
Amati admitted he signed his letters "Killer Ray Ray" but said the name was not an admission of guilt and was used to give him an image as a "tough guy" behind bars.
"You don't want to be humble (in jail)," Amati said. "People pick on the weak."
The other writings involve what Amati said are lyrics for rap songs.
Prosecutors contend the lyrics contain admissions of guilt to murder.
One verse entitled "The Cycle" includes a line, "Shouldna pulled the trigger and killed that man."
Oram and co-counsel David Schieck noted, however, that other lines talk about being arrested, convicted of first-degree murder and being on death row when the writings were authored before Amati's apprehension.